An old, despairing joke has made the rounds over the years in many parts of South Asia. It relates the story of a businessman whose wallet has disappeared. He reports the incident to his local police station, then goes home to lament his lost fortune. Later in the day, the wallet is found in another pair of trousers, and the businessman picks up the phone to notify the police. “No need to bother investigating,” he says “I’ve found my wallet”.
“Investigate?” answers the policeman. “We’ve already arrested four people and three of them have confessed!”
Indeed, humour often seems the only way of dealing with the misery that the widespread atrocities committed by police have wrought on the subcontinent. Though an infamous feature of society for many many years, a real glimpse into the prevalent extent of police violence was recently provided by a frightening report released by the Asian Legal Resource Centre (ALRC), a Hong Kong based, UN-affiliated NGO. The report, the first of its kind, centers on Sri Lanka, and includes testimonies from several victims of arbitrary arrest and police. Its conclusions are nothing short of terrifying. The report uses the term “torture” to describe the violence of Sri Lankan police, indicating a problem that is more systemic than individual acts of “brutality”. Torture is, indeed, so widespread as to be a “routine method of criminal investigation” in the country. And, in the examples provided by the report, a definite structure of command is evident during the exercise of such violence- thus the idea of a few ‘bad apples’ in an otherwise effective police force is refuted. The resulting deep-rooted fear that police instill among most of the population is, of course, coupled with a sense of “personal obligation” towards certain privileged and powerful sectors.
In defining the term “torture”, the ALRC puts forward the argument made by Malcolm D Evans and Rod Morgan in their important 1998 work, Preventing Torture.
“Torture,” the ALRC report explains, “is usedâ€¦ both to get a response (such as information) and to send a message of terror by punishing some people.”
The above would also be accurate as a definition of “terrorism”. And on September 11, 2001, while much of the world was watching the images that would come to define this buzz-word of our time, Ranjini Rupika Hewage fell victim to another, rampant form of terrorism- a kind carried out by an organ of the state. When police arrived at her home in Mathugama search of her husband and were told he was not there, Ranjini “was hit with wooden poles and kicked in the belly”. She was three months pregnant at the time. “When she cried that she was pregnant,” reads the report, “the assaults were continued”. Ranjini was held at the police station for several days. On September 13 she began bleeding heavily, and eventually ended up losing her child. Hers is unfortunately one of the many cases documented in Sri Lanka by the ALRC. Other examples include those of 23-year old Lasantha Jagath Kumara Mullakandage, illegally detained and beaten to death by officers of the Payagala police station, and Gerald Perera, a 39-year-old dockworker and father of two, who was “tortured by eight police officersâ€¦resulting in him being put on a life support system”.
How can one begin to comprehend and explain the presence and persistence of such grassroots torture, that takes its aim at a vast majority of the population? On an abstract level, citing Evans and Morgan again, the report accurately explains that “modern torture functions as a tactic of state control that limits democratic participation”. This function is more conspicuous in many Third World societies, where, for various reasons, there is often little protection for the population against state violence. Basil Fernando, Executive Director of the ALRC talked to me extensively about the situation:
“This is the situation you have in much of Asia today. You sign UN resolutions and covenantsâ€¦ but domestically, there is nothing to protect the population. The sort of legal framework that is needed to protect rights does not existâ€¦ in many places such as Cambodia or Vietnam, such systems of protection have suffered greatly due to long civil wars. Then there are countries that have gone through dictatorships and the legal systems have suffered as a result- a classic case of that is Indonesia. The result of situations like these is that torture becomes endemicâ€¦”
The case of Sri Lanka shows, however, shows the inaccuracy of simply invoking such convenient explanations as ‘civil wars’ or ‘dictatorships’ for the widespread nullification of human rights. Although the country has been racked by a civil war that has raged for almost 20-years, the ALRC report finds the “tactic of state control” to be more than just a means of quashing rebellion in troubled areas- and confirms this by exclusively providing testimonies that were collected away from the war-torn northern part of the country.
“[We] have deliberately avoided references to cases in areas where there is civil strife, conflict or ‘security’ operations,” the report’s introduction reads. Most of the towns and cities visited by researchers were in the south of the country, in “areas devoid of extenuating circumstances”.
“When you mention torture that has taken place in areas where there is conflict, sometimes people in the international community will say ‘these things happen’â€¦ we wanted to show that there is much more to it than that, it is not just something that happened during a conflict.
“People know about what is happening in the North, but in the South also there has been a situation where thousands of people have been killed after arrest. There have been commissions and investigations by government bodies, and sometimes the figure of 30,000 dead is reported in the South aloneâ€¦ these are killings after arrest.”
This is not to say that the backdrop of civil war can be ignored as a causative factor, he explains. But rather than identifying ‘torture’ and “state control” tactics as expected features of a war-torn region, we should see the war as having provided a culture of violence that has been kept alive around the country through its exploitation by powerful sectors of society. This has necessarily had consequences for ordinary people far beyond areas where actual fighting is taking place, as evidenced by the veritable collapse of civil society in southern Sri Lanka.
It seems that the war’s major contributions to the prevalence of torture and state terror in “peaceful” areas have been: 1). the permeation of its horrific levels of violence and terrorism into social institutions and 2). the acceptability and legitimacy that it has provided for further proliferating the “traditions” of violence and domination.
These contributions seem to follow from the fact that many members of the police force are returning military personnel who have participated in the conflict. The Sri Lankan military has been condemned by groups such as Human Rights Watch for waging a “brutalâ€¦ anti-insurgency campaign” against the predominantly Tamil population of the north. Many returning soldiers, often with experience in such atrocities as torture and extra-judicial killings, are assimilated into police forces around the country.
“In the northâ€¦” Fernando explains, “There have been a lot of arbitrary actions by the military, of course reciprocated with the same barbarity by the militant organizationsâ€¦ But today what you have in a police station are people who have taken part in those activitiesâ€¦ arresting people, bringing them into death camps. Many have been directly involved in killings and very extensive torture.”
Not only is it technical knowledge and experience of carrying atrocities that these ex-soldiers bring to the police forces, it is also, to bring up point (2), the knowledge of their own immunity from any conceivable consequence. Confirmation of this latter knowledge arrived during the period of Emergency Regulations in 1971 and through subsequent anti-terrorist legislation, which basically removed all legal checks against torture, arbitrary arrest, and extra-judicial killings, leading to the ‘disappearances’ of an estimated 30,000 people. The power of knowing that one can act arbitrarily in one position of authority (and is in fact encouraged to act arbitrarily as part of an “anti-insurgent” campaign) is a basis for violence that is then carried over to all subsequent positions of authority, such as the police force.
This arbitrary use of power, without any checks, has horrifying results for the majority of innocent civilians: “99% of the victims, of course, are innocent,” says Fernando. “Innocent people when you catch them cannot confess. They don’t know anything about the crime. So they are the people who are tortured more!”
Fernando qualifies his claims as being widely recognized in Sri Lanka. “This is not just something a human rights NGO will say. It is generally admitted, even inside the police.”
In fact, members of the ALRC and Sri Lankan NGOs recently distributed copies of the report to authorities in the police structure and political system, asking them directly why such atrocities have been taking place.
“In their own reports they admit there is a ‘lack of discipline’,” Fernando relates. “Their own explanationâ€¦ seems to be that they are not in control anymore.”
But by anyone’s standards, ‘lack of discipline’ is an insufficient explanation for such tremendous levels of violence- not to mention how long this violence has continued without intervention. And ‘lack of discipline’ seems a particularly strange and inaccurate term to use in the context of the documented cases. In some of them, there is clear evidence of a command structure in operation. In the case of Gerald Perera, mentioned above, the victim describes his beating as being coordinated by commands from an officer: “When the body was to be hung up and assaulted, they did that… The beating was stopped when the officers obeyed a command. When he was to be taken down, they obeyed”.
Indeed, it seems that discipline is in fact being practiced in the use of torture. In a very revealing case, senior officers were actually consulted by telephone after the arrest of Gresha de Silva, at which point his torture began. Though such cases of direct involvement of officers are few, in most cases it is the lack of reaction to complaints and intimidation of complainants that is itself the most compelling evidence of a “tradition” that “torture is used with the knowledge and approval of higher officers”. There has, for example, never been a single indictment or a conviction brought against a police officer based on the substantial history of complaints made by victims and their families. These cases then, the report chillingly concludes, should be seen as “part of institutional practices”.
This seems a more accurate explanation. And given the prevalent nature of these crimes and the crucial fact that they have continued for so many years, a further examination should begin with the likelihood of certain interests being served by the continuance of ‘torture’. Indeed, when such an instrument of violence exists, it is fairly logical to expect that it will be exploited to benefit the centers of political and economic power in society- or “usedâ€¦ to send a message of terror by punishing some people” to go back to the earlier definition of “torture” provided by Evans and Morgan.
Examining the evidence, this certainly seems to be the case. Arbitrary police powers have resulted in widespread bribery and corruption, leading to “a lot of opportunity for police to get rich”, and, inversely, the benefits of violence for those with economic power. One blatant, and particularly gruesome example is that of Angeline Roshana Michael, a part time domestic helper, arrested for theft by a police officer who was “the friend of a very rich family” and who explained that he was “trying to do a favour to his friends”. Presumably this is why his “friends” were allowed into the room to watch as Angeline was brutally tortured by the officer. Such specific incidents, the “common” practice of “arrest and assault made on payment”, are also revealing on an abstract level, in terms of showing direct collusion between violent and wealthy sectors.
In fact, another economic logic pre-dating the war had already made torture and corruption ‘rational’ features of police work in Sri Lanka, though these were to be exacerbated by the conflict. This was the logic that torture and interrogation constituted the “cheapest method of criminal investigation”. The report mentions that Sri Lanka’s policing worked “by relying on cheap labour”, by hiring the poorest, least educated members of society as police officers, and encouraging the use of brutality in their ‘investigations’. “The rougher the person the better” is described as an underlying logic of selection. The “manipulation” and exploitation of these classes fulfilled a basic economic consideration of powerful sectors, that of “cost-effectiveness”. Logically, the pitiful wages would increase the propensity towards bribery and corruption- these are inefficiencies by anyone’s standards, but they could also be seen as increasing police dependence on powerful and wealthy sectors. As mentioned above, these economically rational features of police work were made worse by the civil war.
At the local level, there has also been a “considerable political interest served by not allowing the normal democratic process to work” through the use of police violence. The exploitation of this violence has become so important to political power that a local policeman can often be “politically more powerful than his ‘higher-ups'” because of their comparative value to local politicians. In one indicative example, officers of the Wariapola police station were said to be pushing for the removal of their Deputy Inspector General (DIG) with significant help from local politicians. Their campaign started after the DIG had filed sexual assault charges against them, thereby breaking the hallowed “tradition” of approval.
“In recent times,” says Fernando “There has been a lot of political violence, and a lot of intimidation of whoever happens to be in the opposition. When one party is in power they arrest the other party, and vice versa”.
Indeed, to refer again to the Wariapola case, the support of police was so important for political power that even the Minister of Women’s Affairs came to the defense of the accused officers. This craven act is even more repulsive when we consider that the DIG’s original charges were filed against the officers after a woman was beaten and raped in their custody.
This is level of cynicism to which Sri Lankan society is being subjected by wealthy and powerful sectors. Violence, always a tool of power, gained a new intensity and ubiquity by way the civil warâ€¦ with disastrous consequences for ordinary people all over the country.
Despite the best intentions of some individual members of the judiciary, an inaccessible and inefficient court system has so far been an ineffective means of protection for the population. And even with its impressive name, the National Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka (NHRC), a state-run organization, has been of little help against the endemic torture.
“They [the NHRC] don’t advertise themselves wellâ€¦” Fernando surmises. “And they have also lost a lot of credibility because they try to settle the torture cases for some small sums of money.”
What is immediately needed in Sri Lanka, he says, is a fast and effectual complaints mechanism against police atrocities. But so far, despite the brave efforts of a few people and organizations, instituting this has been a difficult task.
“There is no effective mechanism of complaints that is linked to the state,” he explains. “The only saving grace are a few NGO people, some community persons, and now of course an international lobby, which has developed around an ‘urgent appeals’ system through email and the internet. This has begun to build a certain pressure, but still there is no real, quick mechanism for help.”
The urgent appeals system currently reaches around 200,000 people around the world. A useful emergency measure, the building up of international concern and pressure, particularly in the richer countries, will certainly help to save some lives.
But much more work is needed inside Sri Lanka. Fernando offers us some poignant words to describe the gravity of the situation.
“What you are seeing here is utter powerlessness of the average citizen before the police,” he says. “They have become a kind of superpowerâ€¦. and people do not have the capacity to question and challenge that.”
As Sri Lankan government officials and LTTE leaders meet in Bangkok for peace talks that many believe could yield a compromise, it is clear that a great number of factors must be considered in rebuilding this war-ravaged society. Among them, an independent check to rampant state violence, perhaps through an truly accountable and efficient judiciary, must be built up as a framework to protect peoples’ rights. Crucially, Sri Lanka’s government and decision-making structures must also become more open and accountable to the public. But taking these considerations seriously will involve some fundamental and unreserved questions about democracy, the concentration of economic and political power in society, and the very nature of social institutions. Anything less would leave the door open for further atrocity.
Asian Legal Resource Centre: http://www.alrc.net/index.php
ALRC’s report on police torture in Sri Lanka is found in Vol. 1, Issue 4 (Aug 2002) of their periodical, “Article 2”. For more details, or to be put on their urgent appeals listserve, please write to [email protected]